Islamists and Arab constitutions
While many had hoped that the drafting of new constitutions in post-Arab Spring countries would reinforce a new consensus, Islamists are sowing more discord than harmony, writes Khalil El-Anani
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Members of the National Front for the Completion of the Revolution during a press conference
Having reached power in a number of Arab countries, Islamists have become an authentic party in the process of drafting constitutions in the countries of the Arab Spring. This reality raises numerous questions, not only on the components, substance and wording of the new constitutions, but also on how the process of drafting the constitution should be managed. The problem is particularly acute in Egypt, where a fierce battle rages between all parties, participants and non-participants alike.
The process of drafting a constitution is a reflection of deep and sometimes intense political, social and moral conflicts between diverse social and political forces in society, each of which seeks to leave its indelible mark on -- and safeguard its interests through -- the new charter. The broader the political and ideological gaps between the participant parties, the more arduous and stressful the task becomes. Clearly, therefore, it would be mistaken to imagine that constitutions are a set of aloof and detached texts when, in fact, these provisions represent a culmination of the conflicts between all sociopolitical forces in any given society.
Contrary to what some might imagine, the conflict over drafting a constitution is inherently fiercer and more complex in democratic countries or in countries in the aftermath of popular revolutions such as those that have swept the Arab world. It is a far cry from what happens in authoritarian countries where the constitutions tailored to the demands of the ruler can be stitched together relatively quickly and painlessly with no effective input from the people.
The difficult birth of the Constituent Assembly in Egypt, blame for which has been attributed to the Muslim Brothers' and Salafis' bid to dominate the drafting of the constitution, is only one aspect of the larger and gruelling battle that is unfolding in Egypt over the form and substance of the new constitution. Moreover, one is struck by the fact that the conflict is not restricted to Islamists versus liberals and secularists, alone. Another front has opened within the Islamist camp itself, between the Muslim Brothers and the Salafis, and this battle is part of the confrontation that has been raging between these two forces since the outset of the revolution and that has assumed numerous forms and extended into diverse realms of society, the media, and elsewhere in the public and private spheres.
In general, one observes four chief issues that have become the bones of contention between Islamists and other political forces with regard to the new Egyptian constitution. The first is the identity of the state, a question that to the Salafis, in particular, is a matter of life or death. Like other Islamists before them, the Salafis entered the political fray under the rubric of "protecting the identity of the nation". Many Salafi leaders and sheikhs justify their heavy involvement in politics today on the grounds of the need to defend the country from the peril of secularists and liberals. For our purposes here, there is no need to deconstruct and discuss this notion at length, although it should be stressed that it represents the Salafis' central obsession.
To a large extent, the battle over the country's identity is fabricated, for the concern has no basis in reality. The identity of the Egyptian state is not imperilled in any way. It has existed unchanged for centuries and no faction, regardless of its size and political weight, can tamper with it or alter it to suit its particular ideological outlook or partisan affiliation without putting that faction's popularity and political future at risk. In addition, many liberals and secularists not only affirm the Arab and Islamic identity of the state, but are also very proud of this identity in its broader cultural and civilisational sense as opposed to any narrow sectarian or ideological interpretation of it. True, there may be a handful of liberals who go to the extreme of disavowing their cultural identity or to the other extreme of a narrow and chauvinistic concept of Egypt's identity. However, the vast majority of liberals belong to movements, groups or trends that cherish their national cultural and religious identity and are keen to keep it free of all forms of subordination or degradation.
In fact, it is ironic, given today's battle lines, that Egypt's first constitution established the Arab and Islamic identity of the Egyptian state and this was promulgated in 1923, many years before the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of the contemporary Islamist movement. The subsequent constitutions of 1954 and 1956 reaffirmed this identity, again in the absence of Islamist movements or parties.
It is important, here, to distinguish between the Salafis' and the Muslim Brotherhood's position on the identity question. To the Salafis, national identity is a matter that needs to be set down in the constitution in a manner that can brook no ambiguity whatsoever. The effect of such an inclination is to turn the constitution from a charter of general guiding principles to something akin to an instruction manual with provisions and wordings that lend themselves to extreme centralisation, rigidity and lack of imagination.
For example, Article 2 of the old constitution states that the principles of Islamic law are the primary source of legislation. The Salafis are determined to either to replace "principles" with the word "provisions" or simply to omit the word "principles" altogether. Salafi leaders argue that the reason this is necessary is to obviate a loose interpretation of "principles" that liberals or secularists would use to serve their purposes. The Muslim Brotherhood, for its part, has no problem with keeping the original wording of Article 2. They hold that the wording as it stands is sufficient to establish the role of Islamic law in legislation while guaranteeing the right of Christians and Jews to defer to their own religious laws on personal status matters.
The second bone of contention concerns the general spirit of the constitution. Some Islamists, especially the Salafis, are being unmistakably expedient, if not opportunistic, in their approach to drafting the constitution now that they have been presented with this historic and unlikely to be repeated opportunity. Apart from their obsession with subsidiary and sometimes purely formal questions, the terms and language they use for the wording of the articles they seek to modify or introduce indicate that they are determined to draft an "Islamic" constitution, not in the general civilisational sense of the term, but rather as defined by their particular ideological and political outlook and agenda.
The danger of this resides not only in the Islamists' political vision, with which many disagree, but also when it comes to move from the general to the specific. If already the Islamists have exhibited a high degree of inflexibility on some major general issues that had been previously presumed to have a consensus, what will be the case during the discussion of the personal and civil freedoms and liberties for which the 25 January Revolution was waged? On the whole, the Muslim Brotherhood has been less uncompromising than the Salafis on this score. Yet, their recent silence on some crucial issues -- whether due to their preoccupation with affairs of government since Mohamed Mursi became president or to a desire to avoid a contest of ideological one-upmanship with the Salafis in which the Salafis would attempt to cast aspersions on the Muslim Brotherhood's "Muslim" credentials -- has encouraged the Salafis to press for constitutional changes that conform with their particular ideological outlook. For example, the Salafis insist that Al-Azhar should be the sole source of authority in the interpretation of Article 2, especially in the event that the term "principles" is retained. The notion stirred an outcry among intellectuals and political and rights activists, and it was also opposed by Al-Azhar itself. However, the Muslim Brotherhood made no comment, in spite of the major precedent such a provision would set in the history of Egyptian constitutions and in spite of the dangerous repercussions it could have on Egyptian political life and society.
The third major bone of contention concerns the form of government and the powers of the president. The Islamists are clearly inclined to a mixed presidential-parliamentary, or semi-presidential system that confers powers on both the parliament and the president at the same time. This conflicts with the view of many political activists who prefer a fully parliamentary system so as to ensure that the will of the people remains the true source of sovereignty and power. Again, the Salafis and Muslim Brothers are at odds on this issue. The former want an equal distribution of powers between the president and parliament, whereas the Muslim Brotherhood, as the organisation's lawyer, Sobhi Saleh, stated in a recent press interview, favours granting broader powers to the president, especially with regard to the appointment of ministers, the right to dissolve the People's Assembly and the Shura Council, declaration of war and, of course, the right to amend the constitution.
Political and individual rights and freedoms, which will be up for discussion soon, form the fourth area of contention. Most likely, the Salafis will seek to restrict the scope of rights and freedoms, or at least "Islamise" them through a redefinition of their scope, concept and substance in accordance with their particular understanding and interpretation of Islam. The question will certainly be problematic and attempts to shackle the realm of civil and individual liberties will naturally arouse the anger of a large segment of intellectuals and political activists who believe that such freedoms are the real guarantee against the reproduction of the despotism and authoritarianism that Egypt has experienced during the past three decades. The views on this issue held by this body of opinion and those of the Islamists, and the Salafis in particular, could not be further apart.
Many had hoped that the process of drafting a new constitution would serve as a means to restructure and cement political and social relations within the framework of a new and balanced social contract. Unfortunately, it appears that the blinkered vision of some Islamists is turning the process into a minefield of discord that will entrench the ideological and political polarisation of Egyptian society.